Come see about me: graduation day

First “Can’t Hurry Love,” now this? Must be something about The Supremes that keeps me coming back. But this is the song that my blog’s been singing to me, sometimes pleading, sometimes mournfully, over the last year or so—it’s a song that online writers and bloggers know well. The frequency, the immediacy, of online writing is a difficult siren song to ignore.

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It’s been almost four years since I started Kikugirl, and a lot’s happened to me since then: most of it surprising and unexpected and wonderful. I am still so grateful to this blog. It’s been my Batsignal, a homing beacon—to my surprise and delight, it’s brought me into contact with women I never met but who knew my dad very well. It’s been my playground, where I’ve been able to run around and climb different structures and spin around until I’m dizzy. It’s been my laboratory, where I’ve been able to experiment. It’s been my yoga mat, which keeps reminding me that process and practice are just about everything in the writing life: the labor and the reward, the despair and the joy. It’s been my megaphone, and brought me into conversation with other writers and other platforms like Discover Nikkei and Avidly. It’s been my place to store pieces of my book project, to muse about this new writing life. And it’s been my life in the fourth degree, the MFA degree in English that I’d never had the guts to pursue until now, but perhaps the degree that I wanted the most after all.

I’m still here, I’m still writing, but most of my writing is now published elsewhere. How amazing is that?

This summer I’m going to turn this site into an author website, with the blog still attached. I’ll update the blog still, especially as I turn back towards the book project this fall. I’ll be, as my dear friend Renee said, an author with a blog as part of my online presence. Typing that sentence, just now, makes me think that though I haven’t finished my book project—the “own private MFA” thesis?—I’ve written my way into being a writer, which is just about the only way it’s done. It doesn’t feel or sound strange to say that I’m a writer anymore, and I don’t feel the need to introduce myself with a preface of what I was.

Hooray for commencement, then: it’s graduation day. I’ll be back. Thank you again and as always for reading.

 

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An AWP14 welcome mat: eating, writing, reading in Seattle

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The truth: some of my best conference trips involved sneaking out from the conference. In Houston, I went to the Rothko Chapel; in Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardiner museum. You too? You might not plan to be at the conference the whole time, and you do need to eat. And Seattle has so many options to feed you well, both body and mind.

Before I moved here from California, my experience of Seattle was only through Singles and Sleepless in Seattle. And maybe that’s you, too. But there’s so much more. So I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite restaurants, museums, and bookstores below close to the conference. It’s not comprehensive, and it’s a bit idiosyncratic (where I’ve been, what I like, what my friends like). Nevertheless, I hope you find it useful.

A bit about me

I lived in Seattle for six years, from the late 90’s to the mid-ought’s. I’m an Asian American writer and a food lover, and (at times) a food writer. I’m not a Seattle native anymore, but I’m a Tacoma expatriate (thirty-five miles south) who visits Seattle pretty frequently. I’ve also written about Seattle before, including places like the Seattle Star, the International Examiner, and the local journalism site Seattlest.

A bit about Seattle dining

There are chain restaurants near the conference sites, if comfort and familiarity is what you seek. But Seattle has so many options to feed you, it would be a shame to visit us and not experience some of those. Bring your friends for a coffee, a library walk, a lunch or dinner, a write-in. A lot of us write here. Many of the cafes will offer free wi-fi access or free-with-purchase.

Dress is casual in most places, even in many of the higher-end restaurants: it’s the Pacific Northwest. If you like seafood, you’re in a great place for salmon, oysters, sushi. Mexican food can be hit-and-miss, with the exception I’ve noted below; proceed with caution. Bus access is fairly accessible and reliable around downtown; there are also cabs.

Downtown breakfast and coffee

Grab pastries or even sandwiches at the Dahlia Bakery next to the Dahlia Lounge. (Dahlia Lounge is famous; it’s one of the restaurants where Tom Hanks had dinner in Sleepless in Seattle.) Nora Ephron’s favorite cookie, it’s reported, was the peanut butter sandwich cookie from the Dahlia Bakery.

For coffee, the green mermaid is everywhere, of course. But I also recommend coffee from Caffe Ladro (multiple downtown sites). Locals also love Top Pot doughnuts.  (I’m not a doughnut girl, so I can’t say yay or nay.)

Downtown lunch and dinner

There is, of course, Pike Place Market, an entity all unto itself. You could browse the Market and grab some of Sosio’s produce (trusted by local restaurants, always offering great samples). You could head to DeLaurenti specialty Italian market at the south end of the market for a salad/sandwich. My husband Josh (who works near the Market with an office of foodies) recommends Pear, El Borracho, Local 360, Bacco Cafe, and Piroshky Piroshky (watch the lines) for lunch options. I liked the meal I had at Local 360, which will give you the Portlandia yes-we-know-where-our-chicken’s-from experience, but with much less attitude. We also went to Steelhead Diner for Josh’s birthday last year: upscale diner food, but a nice atmosphere with a view of the water, and yummy.  Friends recommend Cafe Campagne and Le Pichet for French food and romantic atmospheres. The Pink Door, hidden near Pike Place Market, has lovely Italian food and a great atmosphere for dinner/drinks/partying.

Farther up the hill and closer to the Sheraton, Lola has scrumptious Mediterranean food with good vegetarian options. I especially recommend anything with their crispy potatoes, morning, noon or night. Serious Pie has delicious pizza in a communal-table setting. On my last visit, my husband and I had a fabulous kale caesar salad, and flatbread pizza with chanterelle mushrooms and Yukon Gold potatoes. Grab dinner there, dessert at the Dahlia Bakery, or head down to the Procopio Gelateria for some gelato.

Neighborhoods to explore just outside downtown:

South Lake Union

Friends have raved over the offerings at Tom Douglas’s restaurants in South Lake Union, just a short bus ride or walk from the conference. These were made for casual or grab-and-go lunches, especially for the Amazon workers. I haven’t visited Home Remedy, but Serious Biscuit (biscuits, fried chicken) has gotten a lot of positive attention.  I have also heard great things about Skillet Counter and other new restaurants in the food court if you’re near the Space Needle.

International District/Chinatown

If you’re willing to venture a little farther from downtown, head over to the International District/Chinatown; it’s not very far and accessible by bus or a longer walk.

For great Japanese restaurants, try Maneki, which my Japanese American auntie and uncle visited recently and approved. (Bush Garden is where you want to go for post-conference karaoke.) For a casual, low-budget food court experience, the Uwajimaya supermarket has a variety of Asian fast food in the store as well as the attached food court (Thai, Hawaiian, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino). I especially recommend the Beard Papa cream puffs and the Japanese-style sweet crepes from Unicone creperie there. House of Hong is famous for its dim sum.

But I have also loved meals at two Vietnamese restaurants: Tamarind Tree and Green Leaf. Tamarind Tree is a little hard to find, and it’s in a strip mall, but it has amazing food and beautiful decor. You would never guess the inside from the outside. Green Leaf is like that, too: looks small and crowded from the outside, but wonderfully fresh and tasty Vietnamese food.

And I have to mention that while you are here, you should try to make time for the Kinokuniya bookstore inside Uwajimaya (Japanese and English books and magazines, and stationery). I also highly recommend the Wing Luke Asian Museum, which is the nation’s first museum dedicated to Asian American history. The site is gorgeous and the exhibits (developed through a community-centered process) are always provocative and well-curated.

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill is very easy to go to and from the conference by bus or walking. On Broadway, for casual lunches and dinners, I have liked Annapurna (Nepalese/Indian/Tibetan), Eltana Bagel, and Marination Station (Korean/Hawai’ian fusion). Friends have recommended Tillikum Place Cafe for brunch and Poppy for small-plates dinner, although reservations are needed. Melrose Market is something like the San Francisco Ferry Plaza building, with a lot of smaller artisan food shops and merchants. I have been amazed by the pastries I’ve bought from Crumble and Flake (mojito macaron, anyone?), but they sell out quickly so arrive before 2PM at the latest. I have also heard great things about Spinasse (in Capitol Hill) and Artusi (downtown), owned by the same chef, but haven’t visited them yet.

Visit the Richard Hugo House to experience a community center for writers. There are several AWP events scheduled there. It’s a joy to visit the site where so many authors have read (and will be reading); there are posters for readings all over the walls, typewriters in the classrooms, and a zine library. Bonus: it’s close to the Capitol Hill Value Village (Thrift Shop, anyone?) and Elliott Bay Books, and Molly Moon ice cream. Parent/caregiver bonus: Cal Anderson Park, across from the Hugo House, has a great playground if the weather cooperates.

Offsite: more books

Spend some time with a friend by walking through the Seattle Main Public Library. We’re proud of this library—it’s got a fabulous structure, with wonderful views, and even a cafe inside. Take the elevator all the way to the top and then wend your way down with a leisurely stroll. Parents and caregivers: the Children’s room is a wonderful place to take the kids, with great reading areas, toys, and ultra-convenient bathrooms.

Come up the hill and cross I-5 to Capitol Hill, where you can browse at the wonderful and famous independent bookstore Elliott Bay Books.

Those who love food and cookbooks should also try to visit Book Larder, our jewel box of a cookbook store, in Wallingford. It also functions as a community center of sorts; there are frequent classes, demonstrations, and free samples scheduled in the store kitchen. Close to it is Open Poetry Bookstore, a poetry-only store that’s offering conference attendees a discount.

Gifts to bring home

I’m half-Japanese American, so I have to suggest a few places for omiage, or souvenir gifts. Sure, there are the T-shirts and magnets and coffee mugs, but you might want something different. Uwajimaya is where many Japanese visitors go for Seattle-based gifts. The Wing Luke Museum has a great store, as does the Seattle Art Museum.

Other resources

If you are into the latest and hottest restaurant/bar trends, Eater Seattle and Seattle Met will have lists and recommendations. Keren Brown’s A Food Lover’s Guide to Seattle, if you can pick it up before you come, is also a good resource.

And one more thing: the weather

I hope you have a fabulous time here. If the weather gets you a bit down, at least you’re able to experience Seattle like a native. Yes, we use umbrellas sometimes.

But the weather’s especially conducive to writing.

Repetition, music and love:

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(for Josh)
(I know I’d planned other topics and they’ll happen here eventually, but this one wrote itself today)

“With music, repetition is the prerequisite to love.”

As a college freshman, I didn’t know that my music professor was one of the preeminent music historians of his time. As an aspiring writer, what I did know was that Professor Richard Taruskin had a knack for a beautiful phrase on a syllabus. Repetition as the prerequisite to love. It’s a phrase that I stared at over and over, as I listened to those four beige Music 27 cassettes (also known as “clapping for credit”), pressing play, and rewind, and play again. I didn’t know that repetition would be essential for me as a writer, too.

Repeating something that much in order to love it? It seems counterintuitive. And of course repetition is necessary, as even Josh (composer of avant-garde music that he is) would tell you. Of course it’s all about repetition, any fan of pop music would tell you: just three chords for the truth. Our ears love, even crave, repetition.

I am thinking about repetition today, feeling what a privilege it is to learn beautiful music by performing it. Repetition is crucial: learning it note by note, measure by measure, rest by rest, movement by movement. And then the rehearsals: over and over and over, until the music has inscribed new pathways in your muscles and your brain. I can still sing beautiful pieces of music to myself, even the tenor and bass parts—a moveable feast.

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I have to amend my professor’s saying: if repetition is the prerequisite to love, interruption of the repetition is the prerequisite to memory.

I am listening to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, the first big choral piece I ever sang in college with the UC Women’s Chorale. As a mostly amateur chorus, it’s amazing that we got to perform what we did in those four years: requiems, Carmina Burana, strange swooping songs set to e.e. cummings poetry, Croatian and French folk songs. Few of us were music majors. When I auditioned, I could barely read music. But somehow I got in, and it’s the Requiem that I remember the most.

In Chorale I learned something about alto pride. Those sopranos taking all the pretty melody, getting all the attention? Forget them! Altos get to sing down into our chests; we feel the buzz, we feel the burn. We got to perform most of our range in the Requiem, which is a mass, as in a religious mass for dead souls, usually performed at a funeral. As an alto, I love Fauré for how he gave us most of a movement (the Offertory), a duet with tenors–how often do altos get their own movement? Then again, in the Sanctus movement, I get a little upset with Fauré for letting those sopranos go on and on, floating like little cherubim, making us altos wait for rests and rests and pages and chiming in with one measly little note at the end of the movement. I can just about forgive him, though, for giving the sopranos that one beautiful high note of “lux,” light, a cappella in Paradisum, opening the door to light for the rest of us.

Then oh, the “Libera Me” movement. At dress rehearsal we had just finished singing the Dies Irae. It’s about the shaking of the earth, about God’s wrath and anger, the day of “exceeding bitterness.” Then someone rushed into the practice space at the church, telling us that we had to leave. The Rodney King verdict had been released that week: the telephone pole outside the church was on fire.

People were looting and breaking windows on Telegraph Avenue. In the crowded car ride back to our dorm, I glanced once down that street. Police officers in riot gear stood at every corner. It was nothing like the tie-dye shirts, free love, and bookstore-crowded street that had convinced me to attend Cal. Frightened groups of us sang the Offertory softly to ourselves in the car, all the way back to our dorms. It’s a plea, and it’s an offering. That night music was what we had to counter the broken glass on the sidewalk, the barricades next to our place of higher education.

Few of us understood what was at stake that day, I think. But that music and that moment repeats itself for me over and over, as I ask myself why I write. I write to exorcise the fear that came from that day. I write to tell the stories that we repeatedly suppress. I write to answer the questions about justice that came from that day. I want to keep those impulses in my muscle memory; it’s something that only music could have taught me.

My word for the year, 2014

Chambers Bay

Welcome to January! I started this entry with some panic: I needed a Word For The Year. I’ve been using these lately, instead of New Year’s resolutions, as a rough compass for each year, for each place where I’m unsure. Should I do X or Y? I would feed the question to the Word of the Year Magic 8-ball, and see what emerges. Last year’s word was REACH.

Why the panic? I haven’t written a blog post since November of last year. “Don’t panic,” Josh advises in his FB chat to me. “You have to have a Day One [back to writing] that sucks. Make today Day One and get on with it.”

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This year I am feeling the need for a different direction, away from achievement-focused pressure. My neurons are zinging too much on the pressure to achieve, to have a clean and uncluttered house, to make from-scratch nutritious meals and snacks for myself and my family. As if those two parts of homemaking were not enough work and commitment in and of themselves (if I’m not achieving in some public workplace, then I am going to out-Martha-Martha at home!), I am feeling the need to achieve more with my writing. And I think that need is actually hurting the writing itself.

Here, again, are the voices: the voices that berate me for going away from the book for so long. Some vaguely Catholic part of me still wants to confess to someone, ask to be forgiven. There’s the voice that suggests I go back to something with more tangible results, like baking or cooking. Seductive, those last two activities. There’s the voice that suggests I check my e-mail, Twitter feed, number of red dot responses on my Facebook account. There’s the fear and the self-flagellation: the I haven’t done anything yet,the self-accusations of laziness. Is that what I’m worried about the most? That someone will accuse me of being lazy? Sadly, the worst voices are all my own.

I have come to see that these voices are part of the process, coming to terms with the choice that I made—or rather that Josh and I made, together, for me to be home more and not to work outside it full-time, not to reenter the academy as an adjunct professor, not to work just for the income. I know. This is a luxury. But it’s also a balancing act.

Most perfectionists (also including me) grew up being praised for achievement and performance in our grades, manners and appearance. Somewhere along the way, we adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. A ticker tape began to stream through our heads: Please. Perform. Perfect. —Brené Brown

When I say I have had to detox from academic life, this is part of what I am talking about: a relentless pressure to achieve and perform for an audience. I am not saying that every academic feels this pressure. But it is certainly how I came to academic life, how I experienced academic life, and (in part) why I left it.

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Here, then, the latest writing news. One of my blog posts (“How’s the writing going?”) was selected as a top pick for 2013 by the good folks at The Author Chronicles. I have just published a review of a book by Chang-Rae Lee, a writer I have long admired. I have just published an essay in Edible Seattle, a food magazine that appears on the newsstand at the grocery store. If you live in the Seattle area, please pick up a copy and support us. Turn to the back, just inside the cover page: that’s me.

Tempering the achievements is also rejection: a piece that I submitted to a contest was not accepted. I think it’s a good piece of writing, probably not the best fit for the contest or for performance. And it’s good to say that there is also waiting: a piece that I revised and submitted is going on 6 weeks. No word if it’s been received, but I can re-query after three more weeks.

Achievement, rejection, waiting: all parts of the writing life that I am starting to appreciate. In a follow-up interview to the famous Dear Sugar “Write like a Motherfucker” column, Cheryl Strayed added this, in the wake of phenomenal success:

My trajectory has not been failure, failure, failure, then success. The successes have been there all along, and all along, there’s also been a steady stream of rejections and disappointments. I imagine this will always be the case. It’s the writer’s life….Success in the arts can be measured only by your ability to say yes to this question: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”

Am I doing the work I need to do? Not consistently, and not constantly. But slowly, in fits and starts, yes–something like this post.

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“What if the opposite of good is real?”—Claire Dederer, Poser

I enjoyed Claire Dederer’s yoga memoir, Poser, but was hit especially hard by this sentence. What if the opposite of good is not bad, or imperfect, but real?

In yoga, that’s helpful: it accepts all parts of your effort as part of the process. In the case of perfectionism, it’s especially helpful.  Play in yoga has been one of the best words for me. It means that you are experimenting without preconception of what you might achieve or not. It places you directly in that moment of testing and discovery. It is low-stakes, with people not worried about what you might do or not. Play is exploration.

A few weeks ago one of my yoga teachers asked us in class: “What do you need to let go?”  I need to let go of the voices, the awkwardly but permanently coupled voices of perfectionism and self-doubt. The high expectations, even the arrogant expectations for myself, that come with prestige (the enemy of passion). The taking myself way, way too seriously. I need to let go of the need for someone to respond (and quickly) to what I write. I need to let go of the need for praise, which is especially difficult for the overachiever.

I need to let go of the fear of being vulnerable. “Opening your heart” is something you hear a lot in yoga classes, especially with backbends, and shoulder openers—all those poses which (according to my yoga teacher) release fear. In yoga class a few months ago we were on our stomachs, one arm outstretched parallel to the floor and the other arm rising, striving towards perpendicular using the floor as leverage. Shoulders pushed back, releasing the tension from writing and being at the computer. And I thought, “Right. I literally have to open my heart to write this book.”

And then it hit me: the opposite of perfectionism and self-doubt is play.

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In choosing “play,” I am haunted by my own words, quoted back to me by a dear writer friend. She turned some of my words into a poem and gave them back to me in a beautiful 40th birthday card for my next writing project. (More on the birthday cards later.)

Ros-Collard card small

On the back of this lovely card-sculpture, here’s how she did it:

And
it took my
own
willingness to be
vulnerable, to hover on
my
edge
near
tears,
the willingness to speak
what I don’t
say often
enough
because
their
truths are so
close to my
emotional
core.
That’s where I need
to be
in order to write
the book.

I take the words as an honor (my prose is something like a poem), and as a gentle but firm and loving admonishment (get back to work, woman!). But I also take the poem as an example, as a command to take my own writing and play. If I approach my writing as play, I am freer to make mistakes, freer to fail, free to cross words out before I can take them back, freer and more open to the process.

For example: I have organized the book one way: does it serve the story better if I organize it differently? I have a few sections to write still. Can I approach those as play? Although approaching early drafts as “shitty first drafts” has been helpful in the past, I wonder if I should let go of the self-defeating part of that term. Can I approach those as exploration? What will open up as a result?

I’m going back to the book. I’ve been thinking about it, and writing a few notes, but I have not sat down to work on it in a sustained way for half a year. (I originally wrote a year, then went back to my book journal and realized that it’s been half a year. It’s just felt like a year.) I have two big sections to write, and then it’s time to take a step back again and see what happens. And one of my dearest friends bought me a writing workshop as a 40th birthday present. My sister helped us redecorate our house, and we’re getting to know it again through new spaces and happier vistas. Surely those are other places to find out more, and play.

What if, instead of sitting down at my computer or my notebook to work, I sat down at my computer to play? For the overachiever, it’s something near-radical. I just turned forty. Play is actually why I created this blog in the first place.So I’m going to give it a shot. Day One, complete. Word for the year: PLAY.

Next entries: my birthday project, Project House Redecoration, learning to play with text and image through learning the photo essay.

On writing, productivity, and balance

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Here’s another mark of how different my life is now: I was standing in front of a large machine, and for a split second, I’d forgotten how to operate it. It was a copy machine in the teachers’ lounge at my daughters’ elementary school where I was volunteering.

I had to laugh. Copy machines were a regular form and function of my former life for years. I couldn’t believe it had been so long. I could have made copies in my sleep. I’ve always thought that that the copy machine in the opening credits of The Office said so much for office workers; it’s one thing to have that as an everyday function in your life, another thing to see it highlighted as something worthy of attention. Anyone who works in an office environment knows a copy machine. The hum of the machine, the simple pressing of buttons, unless you had special needs like shrinking or highlighting or dark paper or staples or a machine that tended to jam. I remembered all of that, and yet I hadn’t worked with a copy machine in years.

But the copy machine also made me think about productivity: It’s been two months since I posted here, and I have wanted to do some form of productivity report. I haven’t been idle! I keep wanting to tell you. I do things! All day! Let me tell you about them!

Over the last two months, here’s where my writing’s been:

  • I copyedited a friend’s novel with 2 weeks turnaround time. (And it was so much fun.)
  • I worked with a wonderful editor on a food magazine piece, which will be out in January 2014. (More when the issue comes out.)
  • I wrote a music/mothering essay for a literary magazine. It wasn’t quite right for the magazine and its audience, but I plan to rework it and send it elsewhere.
  • I wrote an essay about growing up mixed, Japanese American (Nikkei) and Filipina, for Discover Nikkei.
  • I reviewed Amy Tan’s latest novel for the International Examiner.
  • I put together an application and writing sample for a national education magazine.

Other assignments have emerged from the woodwork; different people and places have asked me to write for them with increasing frequency. I have also started my own letter-writing project for my 40th birthday. I have been away from the book, it’s true, but I can’t really complain at the variety and breadth and sheer enjoyability of these last few months of writing.

Sometimes the academic, the questioner, the analytic, the philosopher in me wonders: who is the report for? Who really needs or wants an accounting of my day? Isn’t part of the freedom of this life the freedom to live around a different clock? Isn’t part of the writing life the freedom to work outside an office, or to make part of my dining table into an office, or a few carefully chosen sunlit cafe tables near windows? And the people who are affected most by how I spend my day—my husband, my kids—don’t really need a written accounting of my day. They actually see my work accounted in their days: do they have lunches, clean clothes where they can find them, meals and snacks that are healthy and taste good? Is their homework finished? Do they get enough exercise? Are they able to talk about their own days in a comfortable home? This domestic fabric is part of my work. It does not get recognized in the larger economy, and (make no mistake) I love it most of the time, but it is exhausting work.

So where do my guilt and shame come from? There must be all kinds of anxiety wrapped up in that urge for productivity, visible as a paper emerging from a copy machine. I have worked very hard, as a matter of fact, to be outside of a career where I needed to use a copy machine every day. Over the last two years I have worked very hard to be in a career where I did not need to emulate a copy machine in its constant—but stagnant—efficiency. A few weeks ago I was working on that book review and realized (again) that I can’t sit down in an hour anymore and crank out something that I’m proud of having written—if I ever could. Good writing, good art takes time. The thing I am proudest of lately is a short personal essay that went through five drafts and two editors besides me. It took time, it took attention, and it took commitment. And it took my own willingness to be vulnerable, to hover on my edge near tears, the willingness to speak what I don’t say often enough because their truths are so close to my emotional core. That’s where I need to be in order to write the book.

However, I keep forgetting that I have to find time to clear out the voices of guilt (I should be writing every day) and shame (I no longer have a prestigious, high-paid career with a steady paycheck and an office). I keep forgetting that part of the time to write also means clearing the mental space to be productive, space without the to-do lists, the shopping lists, the doctor appointments to make, the kids’ homework assignments that need to be completed. So that commitment to clearing space is also part of my work.

And so I wait, and I make time for writing where I can. The book is waiting, and though I am sad to have spent this much time away from it, I feel it waiting for me in the white cardboard box on my desk. I write essays here and there, essays about music and books and food and parenting and history. And in the meantime I negotiate writing time with my family, who are out running a few errands as I speak.

The Retelling: Talking to the National Parks Service About Tule Lake

Photo: Jimmy Emerson

Photo: Jimmy Emerson

Today at The Seattle Star, I wrote a piece that I call a struggle with an essay question. The National Parks Service is taking public comments about the future of Tule Lake and how to tell its story. I attended a virtual meeting, but couldn’t really find a way to express myself through the webinar format. I decided to write my responses and send them in.

As I wrote my responses in earlier drafts, I felt like there was something missing–the responses were heartfelt, detailed, but a little too…obedient, academic, detached. So I ended up inserting (almost at the last minute) a trail of italicized comments within the essay, something like (as my editor Jose Amador called them) “a subliminal soundtrack for the reader.” These were much more raw, expressing conflict and tension. I wanted that feeling to stay with the reader: this is why the story of Tule Lake is unfinished and urgent.

Then my publisher Omar took up the essay and added images, playing with fonts for the different voices of the essay. His additions were so much more than I could have asked for. They were a conversation with the text in themselves, and they taught me (as Omar does) about the power of images.

I’m still scared about this essay, but I think that the fear means that I’m heading in the right direction.

Eggplant Zucchini Okazu (Okazu Nimura-Style)

Eggplantzucchini

When Josh and I were in college and just learning how to live together, we also had to figure out to cook together. It didn’t take long to find our go-to multicultural meal plan: chicken, vegetables, rice (Asian nights!). Or, chicken, vegetables, pasta (Italian nights!). We had lots of variations: stir-fry chicken teriyaki chicken, BBQ chicken, chicken cacciatore. For vegetables: salad, steamed broccoli. For carbohydrates: rice or pasta.

Every once in a while, we’d break out of the routine and splurge on some ground beef, and we’d make okazu.

In Japan, okazu is just a name for “side dishes to accompany rice.” The rice is meant to be the star of a meal. I’m guessing that this is because the Japanese value rice so highly, and because their “food pyramid” looks different than the American version. In my family, it means something different. Until about 10 years ago, I thought that “okazu” meant just one specific dish. If you said “okazu” to me, I’d tell you without hesitating: it’s eggplant and zucchini, stewed with some garlic and ground beef, all in a light sweet-soy sauce broth. Never mind that I’d never seen our version of okazu anywhere else, including Japanese American potlucks and restaurants.

Okazu Nimura-style is meant to be a main dish, a one-pot dish that you ladle over rice into a dinner bowl. As I heard my aunties tell it at one New Year’s gathering, okazu’s a dish that grew out of necessity. My grandmother had to stretch a pound of hamburger into a meal that would feed six kids and two adults. What did they have in abundance, maybe from their vegetable garden or from the farms where they worked? A lot of eggplant, a lot of zucchini. Brown a pound of ground beef. Maybe add some garlic cloves or garlic powder. Add a couple of flavorings that taste vaguely like teriyaki (soy sauce, sugar), and let the whole thing stew, and there you have it. Okazu.

Some of my Internet research tells me that versions of the dish grew out of the Sacramento valley, where I grew up. There are a couple of recipes floating around with green beans or cabbage instead of eggplant and zucchini. You could try those; they’re not so different than the recipe I’m going to give you. But if you like ratatouille, what happens to eggplant and zucchini in that dish, you might try this okazu instead. The vegetables turn silky, if you let them stew long enough. Mixed all together with a bowl of rice, it’s simple and comforting.  I grew up with so many meals ladled over rice. I still miss those brown Noritake stoneware bowls, large enough for a meal but small enough to fit on the wide arm of a comfortable couch.

Okazu is simple farm fare. it’s hearty, it’s Japanese American soul food. It takes minutes to put together, and it stews obligingly while you take care of other matters: giving the kids a bath, watering the plants, sweeping the kitchen floor. Just don’t forget to turn on the rice cooker.

I don’t have a finished picture for this dish. Okazu’s not very photogenic; it doesn’t look very appetizing unless you’ve tried it. I’ll just have to trust your palate—does the combination of flavors sound appealing to you?—and maybe your sense of adventure, if you’ve never tried it before.

If adobo is my Filipino home, okazu might just be my Japanese one.

Eggplant Zucchini Okazu (Nimura-style)

  • 1 lb (more or less) of ground beef. Ground turkey works in a pinch, too, but dark meat is better. (A lot of the flavor comes from the meat.)
  • 1 globe eggplant or 2-3 Japanese eggplant, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2-3 medium zucchini, cut into chunks
  • About 1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce, to taste
  • About 1/3 cup white sugar, to taste (note: while trying to cut back on white sugar, I  used maple syrup a couple of nights ago, which worked out nicely)
  • 2-3 minced garlic cloves, or about 1 tsp garlic powder if you don’t have fresh garlic
  • Water, barely enough to cover the ingredients above when in the pot (See notes below)
  • Cooked rice for serving (I like to mix white and brown together)
  1. Brown the ground beef in a medium-sized pot until it is cooked through. If there is a great deal of grease, drain the grease from the pot and continue browning the beef.
  2. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and minced garlic to the beef and mix well.
  3. Add the eggplant and zucchini to the sauce and meat. Then add a little bit of water, about half a cup. Note: The vegetables will release a lot of water, and you don’t want the sauce to be too watery, so don’t add too much at first until the vegetables have cooked.
  4. Let the dish stew, let the vegetables cook, and then add a bit more water if the eggplant is still tough and leathery and the zucchini isn’t sinking into a nice velvety oblivion. This step should take about 25 minutes over medium heat, although you might begin checking after 20 minutes to see if the vegetables are cooked the way you like them.
  5. Check the broth and see if it has enough flavor (too salty, too sweet? Need more water, soy sauce, sugar?), and adjust to taste. Check to see if the vegetables are cooked enough; the eggplant and zucchini should be fork-tender, if not melting (the way I like them). Serve over hot rice.

“How’s the writing going?”

IMG_1214 On the one hand, I’m excited that people are asking me this question. Really. Most people who ask me this question are well-intentioned and sincere. They want to know how this new writing life is working out for me. It’s the polite thing to do. You would ask someone in a different profession, “How’s work?” So, “how’s the writing going?” Why not? Really, what else are you supposed to ask a writer?

So, small confetti toss and break out the margaritas: hey, I’m a writer! People ask me this question now!

On the other hand, to ask a writer how the writing is going…..let’s say that it’s, um, anxiety-provoking. I asked my Facebook friends (yes, not-writing again) how they answer that question. Their responses ranged from anxiety to terror to deflection (“I turn the question around and ask them how they are doing”) to deception (“I just LIE”). My friend Christine’s written a wonderful blog post about how she responds when people ask her how her novel is going. Her description is true and raw and honest, almost a mini-lyric essay where she compares her novel-in-progress to a gestating fetus. It’s better than I am making it sound, I promise. And there’s a link to a great Family Guy video about writing.

See, there are problems with asking the writer-me a question like “How’s the writing going?”

There’s the hyperoverachiever me, who would like to tell you that I wrote a thousand words today, and that I only erased 5% of those words.

There’s the listmaker me, who would like to tell you that I’ve given myself a ton of short assignments, and I’m just going down the list now, making a nice check mark after each one.

There’s the linear thinker me, who would like to tell you that I wrote a chapter a week, one after another, merrily rolling along, words pouring out of me faster than the water over Snoqualmie Falls. And I started with Chapter One, and I’ll finish with Chapter Ten, the last chapter! Honestly, I had to cut myself off at ten chapters. (TOTAL lie.)

There’s the ambitious me, the attached to attention and achievement me, who would LOVE to tell you that you’re going to see the finished product sometime somewhere very soon, coming to your bookstore or computer screen or mobile device or movie theater (or all four!) sometime soon.

Each of these me’s has some serious issues, as you can see. They would be lying if I let them answer your question. All of them struggle mightily to answer this question. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know why it feels this way, or to remember I have all of these issues.

But that’s why I’ve learned to pause before I answer.

As the Supremes put it, you can’t hurry love—no, you just have to wait.

*****

Longer projects like this book are hard on a writer like me: I want to show you pieces along the way, I want to have someone to cheer me on at pit stops. Here’s where something like a blog comes in handy for us writer types; there’s a reason why there are so many of us, writers who blog. A blog lets us churn out some kind of achievement, even as small as it might seem in some places. It lets us talk about the process. It lets us try out pieces along the way, and (if we’re lucky) we get some feedback from the ether. It’s our personal training plan, our dress rehearsal, our soft opening.

I want to tell you that my book is almost done. But there are at least two more big sections to write. And then I have to look at it all over again, to make sure that there’s a heart, a core, that will take the reader by the hand (or gut) and not let go for a few hundred pages. It will need to explode, or transform, by the end of the book. And eventually I will have to pull out the stitches that show you where I’ve done that work, so that it all feels like magic.

All of that, that’s work. It is process, and because it is messy and nonlinear, it is not something I can sound-byte for a small-talk conversation very well. I don’t think I’m supposed to, actually. I am supposed to keep my head down, and work: as Cheryl Strayed says, “to lean hard into the work and not the anxiety.” People probably don’t want to hear that much about process, about how it is at times bliss and at times ridiculously hell, and most of the time even worse because it is flat and mediocre. That is, unless, they are also writers.

The truth is that for me the artistic process is, the best creative processes are, exhausting. They involve the tiniest synapses of the brain, the rawest chambers of the heart, the feathery cilia of the lungs. (Not all of my writing is for the book: there are essays, and book reviews, all the way down to Facebook status updates and tweets. But I want my best writing, my A-game, for the book.) I can’t write my best without access to all of that, sometimes all at once. I think that’s why my best writing started as a present for someone else: there’s heart behind what I want to say, and there’s commitment, and there’s devotion to the craft. Usually when I do that kind of work, though, I’ve been building up to it through smaller things and pieces most of the way: a kind of personal training. I’ve taken notes, yes. I may have read something that makes me cry or brings me close to tears. I have spent hours rearranging mental Polaroids on the cork board in my head—this scene first, or this one? I have thought and pictured and remembered hard with all of my senses, trying to take you wherever I’m going.

There are the seemingly idle times, too. I have taken long walks. I have pondered in the shower. I have made jars of jam, not because I need to but because I want to. I have taken pictures with my camera phone: another way to find images and feed them to my subconscious. I have waken up from dreams with just that image that I need to save, right now, before I forget. I have stared out of numerous cafe windows. I have read books and books and books for months before bedtime, and I have browsed in snatched minutes at the library or bookstore. It does not look like work, or what our culture is used to recognizing as work. (Make no mistake, behind the “how’s the writing going?” question can also lurk the surprisingly powerful and devastating question, “what do you do all day?”)

So I have been afraid, and I have been terribly sad, and cranky. Sometimes there are doubts and questions raining on my psyche. Something like the passive-aggressive Seattle mist crap™ that falls nine months out of our year. Not enough to stop me from going out altogether, but enough to make me crave anywhere but here in February. I have also been terrified, fingers growing colder as I type, heart pounding faster, fear of typing, of hitting save, of being read. Very few people want to hear about that part of the work.

There are the times when I have no idea where I’m going, or what I’m doing. Those times are more frequent than I’d like to admit. I’m a bit of a control freak at times, and that uncertainty petrifies me. Usually—coincidence?— that is when someone asks me how the writing is going, and it is awful to say that I have no idea, so I’ll typically respond with a simple “It’s going.”

Every once in a while there’s the umami bit of it all, the mystery that happens when I’m able to get out of the way. It’s the flash of insight (large or small) that I could never discover any other way, the image that crystallizes everything I’ve been hoping to say, the question that surprises me as I ask it. It’s when I say what I really want to say–sometimes, the disconnect between an artist’s vision  and their execution of that vision is enough to drive them crazy. Those voices, those me’s that long to tell you about the product, not the process?—those voices sometimes shut the hell up while I’m working.

And then, only then, I can say that I’ve written something good, and it’s close to finished.

Then all of it is my work, the process and the product, and I love it. Then the skies are clear, and blue. Then I’m slogging through murky but receding floodwaters, a storm survivor finally making her grateful way back home.

#amwriting: Of No-No Boy and No-No Boys

No-No Boy, John Okada

I’ve been working on a personal essay for a few weeks now, trying to process the Japanese American National Museum conference that I attended a few weeks ago. I’m starting to see how to write longer and longer pieces, warming up again for the book project.

Here it is, all grown up, at The Seattle Star. I’d love for you to take a look.

First day back

IMG_0775

First day back after a long hiatus is usually the worst.

It is cranky and sleepless as a new parent.

It is as uncomfortable as struggling back into a wet bathing suit.

It is the old chestnut writing prompt: to write about not writing.

It is acknowledging that yes, the flat of raspberries from the farmer’s market is partly a jam-making meditation, partly a form of procrastination.

It is hmmmm, forgot my cell phone at home. Maybe I need to go back home.

It is oh shoot I have a deadline to meet.

It is “you are SO unmotivated and if you were a writer, you would have written every day like Annie Lamott and Stephen King BOTH say you should.”

It is wondering about all that social media time and energy. Crafting status updates and Tweets? Micro-blogging? Or another form of not-writing?

It is maybe I should clean out my email inbox.

It is walking back into the indie cafe where the indifferent baristas will make my drink beautifully, even if it’s got chocolate syrup in it, to be back where there are windows and just the right amount of steam hissing and conversation and music for me to focus.

It is the ideas in my head that have yet to meet the page: the essay about No-No boys and No-No Boy, the essay about growing up multifaith (Buddhist and Catholic), the essay about yoga and water slides, the blog post about finding the end to my book (finally! finally! finally!), the book chapter about butterflies and auspicious coincidences.

It is scattered as a box of crayons, and just as full of possibility.

It is to keep my head down and do the work.

It is I’ve missed you, writing life.